Friday, August 15, 2008


So now I’m back in the United States. I’ve been here for over two weeks and soon I’m heading back to work in Seoul for another year.

Overall, it’s great to be home. It’s so easy: I speak the language and I understand the culture! I’ve cut down on the number of hours I sleep simply because I’m not as tired as I was in Korea; my brain felt constantly at work over there, but here, it takes a lot more to exhaust me. And seeing people and eating the food here has been as and often even better than I expected. Also, I’m happy to report that after a year, I can still speak in complex sentences, something I did at times wonder about.

I landed in LA and had a four-hour layover before flying into PDX and meeting my family. There are two things that struck me as I walked around the LAX terminal:

1. Our population has a lot of variety. Compared to Korea, one of the most homogenous nations in the world, America really is a rainbow. The airport had fat old white guys, tall young girls in head scarves, a flamboyantly dressed bald, tan, fit Latino talking to a skinny black woman with a corkscrew afro. Different languages, interracial couples, kids of all different skin shades running around—I know the LAX airport is a more diverse population than in many parts of the US, but even in my small 12,000 people hometown in Oregon I see significantly more variety than I did during my time in Korea .

2. We have small heads. I know this sounds odd, but bear with me—when I first got to Korea, I heard a lot of people tell me and the other non or part-Asians in the program in rather reverent voices that we had small faces. I initially felt confused and a little self-conscious, until I was told that this is a huge compliment in Korea. Everyone wants to have smaller heads, apparently, as it looks cute. I have many pictures of my students using their hands to cover parts of their face in an attempt to make them look smaller when photographed. I didn’t actually think, though, that most westerners have small heads, until I landed in LAX and most of the people around me seemed to have disproportionately small faces.

There's a lot I didn't write around the time I was leaving, but here's one story from my final night with my school:

After my last day of teaching, I went with the school staff and faculty to dinner at a popular pork restaurant. We sat on the floor at long, rectangular tables, grilled marinated meat and garlic, wrapped bits of it in lettuce and bamboo leaves, and washed it all down with beer and soju, Korea’s hard alcohol of choice. There were lots of speeches, I mangled a few sentences to my table companions in Korean, and when my principal visited my table I found a glass and, as is polite, poured him a shot of soju. Already red-faced, he leaned in and slurred something to me. One of my co-teachers translated: “you are born, and then you die.” After a few more lines of translated depressing philosophy to which I did not know how to respond, he returned to his own table and finished his dinner.

After a round of cold noodles to finish off the meal, we all stood up, stretched our legs, and went out to the parking lot. I was preparing to be taken home and work more on packing.
Suddenly the home economics teacher was in front of me.

“You will go?” she said to me and my coteacher in Korean.

I heard my coteacher explain that she would leave and take me back to my apartment.

The home economics teacher began speaking more loudly and quickly and gesturing a lot. After a few minutes and a lot of nodding, my coteacher turned to me, her face sympathetic but firm.

“I’m sorry. You cannot go home yet. Now, our school will go to noraebang."

A lump forms in my throat. Noraebang is Korean karaoke. It is a very popular pastime, and most Koreans get very excited when it’s mentioned. For me, however, hearing the word makes my heart plummet. The way others feel anxious and scared and heart race-y about planes or public speaking or spiders, I feel about having to sing in public. It’s not that I just don’t enjoy it; I fear it. With the assistance of alcohol in the company of very close friends here, I can occasionally do noraebang in Korea. But the idea of singing, on my own, sober, in front of 30 teachers, most of whom are 40 or older and with whom I only see at our bi-weekly staff meetings and occasionally talk about me in front of me in Korean I don’t understand is not how I want to spend one of my last nights in Korea.

“I think…maybe I should not go. Actually I must pack many things and…” I start.

“But this noraebang is for you because you will leave. I think you must go and sing a song. Then it is okay to leave and pack.”

And so ten minutes later I am sitting on a velvet chair, heart pounding, slowly flipping through a sticky black binder of karaoke selections. In front of me is beer, soju, and now whiskey, along with the traditional Korean bar fare of candied peanuts and dried squid. My stomach is churning too much to touch any of it. In front of me, they have already started. The social studies teacher has rolled up his pants into his socks and is doing a jig while the gym and health teachers are belting out Korean oldies while the computer teachers slams a tambourine on her knee. The social studies teacher jigs over to me, smelling of grilled meat and alcohol, and leans over the binder. “Pop song! Pop song!” he encourages me.

I nervously smile and look up again and see that my principal, now maroon-faced, is about to sing. He chooses a rambling traditional ballad. And then he starts. And there is no way around it—he is tone-deaf. He is off-key, loud and the teachers struggle to find the beat to clap along.
Then things start to click in my brain. I consider that my principal is a very bad singer—potentially on par with me. And I consider that to the teachers here, noraebang is a very kind goodbye present to give me as in Korea everyone loves karaoke. And I consider that my arguments about really, truly fearing karaoke will not hold a lot of weight here, in a country of collectivist thinking. I also consider that a number of the teachers are drunk and will not remember this, and that the rest I probably won’t ever see again as in 72 hours I will be on a plane.

And so I stand up after the principal finishes, and a microphone is pushed into my hand, and someone pulls out my camera, and soon I’m on the karaoke stage, listening to the opening chords of “Let it Be.” The words come on the screen and I am singing. Truthfully, I can hear myself, and, as I suspected, I am also off-key. But I am singing. And then the gym teacher starts hitting the tambourine, the math and ethics teacher are suddenly flanking me and swaying and singing what they can of the English with their arms around my shoulders, and the principal comes up and holds my hand and joins in the sway session. And while this is something I did not expect, something that I’m clearly not good at, it is, once I’m doing it, sort of fun.


I don't think I’m going to keep this blog next year in Seoul, so this will probably be my last post. I really want to thank you, though, for keeping up with me, reading, and commenting and putting up with my pretty inconsistent posting. I feel really lucky to have had the last year and to have people to share it with. And if you ever have the chance at a karaoke bar, please sing a song for me.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Thursday, July 10, 2008

next year

I'm coming back to Oregon July 20th. I'll be in the United States for about a month. Around August 24th I'm headed back to South Korea.

I'll be working in Seoul for the International Debate Education Association (IDEA), a non-profit that sponsors debate-related activities around the world. I'll be organizing programs for IDEA in Asia and other parts of the world. Come late August, you can find what I'm doing here. The position is for one year.

This is a definite change from my initial plan of going straight to law school this fall, but it's a change I'm really excited about.

Please let me know when you're in the northwest this summer-- especially if you want to eat hamburgers, big salads, normal pizza, Oregon strawberries or Mexican food. If you want to eat rice or pickled vegetables, you're out of luck.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

excited's mean is too small

Yunju's next letter, after my brother came to visit (a future post!) :

Dear Elizabeth,

Hello! teacher. Oh! I was so excited to get your letter! excited's mean is too small..Umm..I feel unbelievable! It's the first time get Letter from English teacher! Wow! I din't think get a handwritten letter! I practice cursive many time. (Do you understand my cursive?).

Oh! I have good news! Out family decided not move to Jeju City. Not soon! My mother said, "We don't move to Jeju City in summer vacation. But Sometime we will go to Jeju City." I'm so happy. Because I miss my friends. If I move to Jeju City. But still I'm sad think about your leaving.

Wow! Your brother! I saw him today!! Um...I don't know. When I met your brother, I was little shy. I don't know why. He was very tall!! He's taller than me. not little! I'm excited when I meet tall person. (But...Umm..Elizabeth..My brother's taller than your brother! haha. I proud of my brother's tall. I'm sorry :)).

I'm impressed, too, that you like Bible! I read little. Maybe...Genesis? Ha! ha!

Bibles have many Version. So I recommend version called "New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures!" Versions are not same. They are different. Do you believe a bible? Many people think Bible is legend or false. But I think bible is so real. Even bible have scientific. I think that's the true.

Um...Teacher. What mean stationary? I don't understand. I found the meaning (meaning is "not moving"). But I didn't understand. You said ("the stationary you used is so pretty").

Coldplay. I more like "Jonas Brothers" but when I feel blue or rain, I like it very much. I searched for "Amsterdam" on the internet. But, nothing. Would you please send email (mp3 file, my computer don't speak)? If you are busy, don't send.

I searched "Coldplay," I read this: Punk Rock. "Coldplay" what kind of music? Please tell me about Rock...

Well, I will miss you very very much!! too...You are my favorite teacher. Thank you for read this long letter. I am happy we are friends, too...I was so impressed for you letter! I don't forget the letter.

Have a good weekend, teacher!

-Noh Yunju

ps-- Your good words made me happy. So I want my letter, too. Good morning teacher~

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

say hello to your eyes

Today I got a letter from one of my very favorite students. This girl is great-- she doesn't hold back at all. Last week I gave her some chamomile tea I had from America, and she declared, laughing, that it looked and smelled like pee. But then she drank it and told me it was delicious. We talk a lot about books and Korean and American singers and I think she wants to be a writer. I told her I wanted to be a lawyer and she was very impressed.

It's difficult to get a real sense of it typed, as half of the fun of this letter was the special faces and drawings she sprinkled throughout it. But I still think it's worth sharing. I will miss my students more than anything else in Korea.

To. Ms. Elizabeth
Hello? I’m Yunju. Teacher I’m so sad. I have two reason.

Reason 1 (Beat Please—like dugududgoodoo)
You will go to the America soon. You are so good teacher. You listen our voice and give new lesson. I was really happy when we talked each other. Because I like English. I like new. I like America. And I like you. So I REALLY sad.

Reason 2 (Beat again)
I will go to the Jeju City (House-moving. I will move to Jeju City maybe (70%?). I was so disappointed. Maybe summer vacation. I think. AAA (Anyway And After All—it’s the first) we’re parted. What should I do? I’m not want to house-moving. I lie in Seogwipo during 6 years (Wow! Very long time).

By the way. Oh! I heard news! Will your brother come to Korea? Wow I really want to see your brother. He is a writer, isn’t he? I feel dizzy. I have an amnesia maybe. Haha.

Writing books is brilliant and wonderful. These days I’m reading a Bible (“Bible is a international best-seller”) Bible said, “A word spoken the right time for it” in book part is really helpful other people. So I think writer is brilliant. And I believe you must the THE LAWYER.

Do you know why I write letters? (not email). I like letters. Writing Letters with hand and pencil is so classical and interesting (specially English Letter) to me. I’m like this letter paper.

I think COLDPLAY is so good. “The Scientist” more listen. I like this song. So, introduce song about Coldplay please.

Um…Thank you read this letter. I plan write more letters to you. I am looking forward to reading from you. But not Answer I’m ok. I understand. Just say just Email Just short letters. I’m okay, really. Please, I don’t want to you have loads.
With love,

Yunju Noh

ps: Say hello to your eyes.

Friday, June 6, 2008

much better than may day

May was chock-full of holidays, both national days and special days for my school. Some of my favorites:

Sports Day (school-specific)

Classes are canceled and students spend the day competing in sports. I probably would have dreaded this day when I was in middle school, but as a teacher it was awesome. I watched my students do relay races, play soccer, limbo, and compete in a number of “sports” I had never seen—including one where two people stand in the middle of tires tied to the opposite ends of a rope and try to pop a balloon with a rubber hammer, and another that involved mass amounts of girls sticking their heads under each other’s legs. Students were really surprised that we don't have this day in America-- it's an annual event for each elementary, middle, and high school in Korea and is used by other groups as well. I've been to "Sports Day" for my host family's church and another one for my host mom's high school reunion.

English Festival (school-specific)

Students perform English skits and pop songs for their peers. Most of the skits were shortened versions of fairy tales or Disney classics, but one of the more ambitious groups did one involving Korean Power Rangers, and another did a modern Korean twist on Romeo and Juliet where the couple meet in a PC Bang and die after bowing many times in a Buddhist temple. The older students at my school performed choreographed dances in matching variations on the school uniform while singing English pop songs. At the end, they announced prizes for the best skits and songs, which resulted in a lot of tears from really excited and really disappointed students.

Teacher’s Day (national)

Students (or, more generally, the Parent-Teacher Association) give small presents to teachers. At my school this meant we each got a corsage, a small yellow melon, two hallabongs (a citrus fruit native to Jeju), designer socks, and a piece of cake in a fancy Peter Rabbit-decorated box. And half of the day off! America need to adopt this holiday. Here are some of my favorite girls. The two in the middle delivered cake and flowers:

Buddha’s Birthday (national)

A day of no school and free lunch at Buddhist temples. I went to Jeju’s most famous temple with my host parents, an experience that did not resemble my prior very quiet, centered-feeling visits to other temples in the least. Here, Buddha’s birthday was definitely a holiday. Street vendors sold double-fried corndogs, cotton candy, dried cuttlefish, and red-bean filled pastries; peppy Buddhist rock music played over loudspeakers; in the main hall of the temple uncomfortable looking children performed a sort of pageant for a talkative audience of proud parents and video camera-toting monks. In the basement of the temple, a long line stretched out the door for people waiting for the free lunch of rice mixed with vegetables and red pepper paste.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

and now they're letting them

Fulbright is reinstating the grants to Palestinians in Gaza! Click here.